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Good Intentions, Bad Idea: “Free” Community College

During this campaign season, we have seen an extraordinary battle of ideas regarding higher education. One of the more interesting ideas currently being promoted actively by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (and supported by President Obama) is a policy proposal to make community college free for everyone.

On its face, this seems to be a no-brainer – after all, what could possibly be wrong with offering free community college to every American citizen? In theory, it should increase not only the lifetime income potential of students who take advantage of this, but it would also greatly increase the skill set of millions of current and future workers.

Despite these benefits, I think this is a bad idea for a number of reasons.

1. Who’s going pay for it? The US budget deficit is at record highs, and millions of Americans are barely able to make ends meet with an ever-increasing tax burden. Given that, I haven’t heard of a single reasonable proposal in terms of how free community colleges will be paid for. In essence, how can a country that is essentially bankrupt (if you have a massive debt and deficits, as we do right now, in my book that means you’re bankrupt) afford yet another program that will cost American taxpayers billions of dollars over many years? This is a rhetorical question, of course: you will be paying higher taxes if we have “free” community colleges.

2. Who will qualify? It’s not entirely clear to me exactly who would qualify and would not qualify for free community college – and I follow politics closely. After all, many – but by no means all – community college students are already receiving federal and state grants, loans, and other need-based aid. Should we really be offering free community college to families that can easily afford the relatively reasonable costs of community colleges?

3. How long would “free” community colleges last? If community colleges were free for everyone, would this be a program that would be a permanent part of American life? Would it be the equivalent of Social Security – a program that once enacted could never reasonably be expected to be eliminated? If so, this would be yet another entitlement program that my family and yours, and our children’s children, would be stuck paying for whether or not the program ever benefits my family or yours.

4. Community colleges are already affordable. One of the great attractions of community colleges is the very fact that they are already reasonably priced. In fact, many students that come from struggling families go to community college for two years and then transfer to a much more expensive institution to complete their bachelor’s degree. Is there a pressing need to make free a community college experience which is accessible to the vast majority of Americans?

5. Politics, politics, politics. It seems to me that at the crux of this debate is whether or not this is a policy proposal that is addressing a real issue or whether it is political pandering for candidates seeking higher office. I have been a professional independent college counselor for many years, and never once in my practice have I ever heard any of my families say that community college was too expensive – and I do quite a bit of work with families from low-income backgrounds on a volunteer basis. The fact of the matter is that community colleges are so popular precisely because they are within the financial reach of the vast majority of Americans. For those who cannot afford it, there are so many programs out there to help those families that I just don’t see you why we need to make this free.

Don’t get me wrong. I think community colleges are an exceptionally important part of higher education. I am totally against denying any student the opportunity to attend community college because he or she can’t afford to pay for it.

But the fact is that community colleges are within reach of virtually every person that wants to attend. At a time when many American families are suffering financially – especially the middle class – I frankly find it unfair and unreasonable to make an already affordable and accessible product free of charge only because politicians want to take credit for a program that ordinary middle-class families like mine will have to pay for with higher taxes for many years to come.

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